Patrick Healy Essay 2010
Itamar Gilboa - ‘Chief of Stuff’ 2010.
Essay by Professor Patrick Healy
It is difficult to imagine an exhibition in which an artist could place himself more directly on the line, so clearly in sight. The theme, the presentation, the topics with which he engages, the means and instruments which he chooses to use to communicate, make this a very personal, a very intimate event. Nevertheless it is in full public view, and must surely be seen as courting controversy, even as daring a response. Art here is political, not about politics, and yet it is intensely autobiographical.
One can also see that this exhibition has come to the other side of his work in ‘I want to be green’. That was the title of his graduation project at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, five years ago. At that time he was in the middle of investigating both sides of the coin, if you like of migration to Holland and return to his country of origin, Israel. He was also dealing with the fact of his own situation living in Holland, and inevitably reflecting on what he had experienced there. This very specific element of his reflection could be seen at the exhibition held at the Jewish Museum, Amsterdam, in August 2008, which was reviewed by the online Saatchi Gallery, commenting on his miniature houses, it suggested ‘ Gilboa’s wooden huts presents enclosed miniature furnished living rooms that require a lot more effort to intrude into the personal lives presented in the miniature LCD screens. This mirrors the struggle of individuals in the films trying to integrate in different cultural worlds as they move to different countries: ( Saatchi Gallery Review by Maria Santeaeularia Badia)He looked at the lives of Israelis in Holland, and of Dutch people in Israel, creating a visual mirror and commentary.
The distinguished cultural historian Mieke Bal also commented on the creative and original work of Gilboa and his ‘ profoundly serious engagement with art in the contemporary world”. Mieke Bal was referring to his two major projects, I Want to be Green, and Rijtjeshuizen, and endorsed the view of the insider/outsider artists as a major achievement of contemporary art practice. The installation of the miniature houses, handmade by the artist, was like a dolls’ house of exile, in which the interior decoration matched the story being told, again these stories, heard through microphones, as oral history and documentary, but with a difference, one is forced because of the emplacement to peep into them like an intrusive voyeur, and the sense of mismatch of private feeling, the house and public display become as Bal says a way of increasing our ‘ understanding of the situation of migrancy’.
Many points could be made about his formation in Holland where he arrived in 2001, from Tel Aviv, after pursuing business studies and acting. It was a fatal decision to study in Amsterdam, perhaps motivated by already existing networks from friends made during army service days, social life in Tel Aviv.
The late 90’s and early 2000’s saw a significant increase in the number of Israeli nationals living in Amsterdam, and at that time quite a number of students from Israel studying fine arts, design, photography, visual and fine arts at the Rietveld. The development of, for example, the Bezalel in Jerusalem and its filial in Tel Aviv, and the rapid expansion of international programmes for studying art in Israel, would make such an option seem today less and less attractive, if at all necessary.
The direction of work in the Rietveld, for the most part not underwritten by any coherent curriculum of theory teaching, was, nevertheless, being moved towards what can be called a conceptual direction. Video art and photography developed in strength during his time there, and the notion of political engagement, usually a form of social commentary, consisted of relatively abstract discussions about spatial strategies to deal with the visualization of ‘everydayness’. Criticality and social commentary were fused. It was however in the areas of book design and photography that the Academy gained most public attention. But reality runs ahead even of the pre-occupations of theorists, and within a month of his arrival he says the impact of the terrorist attack on America, and the events of September 11, had an immediate effect on students and artists.
The installation made for Gilboa’s graduation project was arresting and complex. He had engaged many people living, usually foreigners, in Amsterdam to speak about their experiences. He created a small cinema space, a box within a box to view the results.
The initial focus of his research was an enquiry into the ‘politics of identity’ for people living in a foreign country. In a note for the Bedlam Gallery in London, where he exhibited along with Zadok Ben-David, Gideon and Michal Rubin, curated by Silia Ka Tung, he expressed his concerns as having to do with assimilation, alienation and self alienation.
That show entitled Sequences and Repetitions pointed to the underlying issue of how art was inserted and created the series of everydayness with which it also tried to struggle.
One can say it was the topic really of hospitality and place that was crucial to his work.
However he did not choose a straight forward documentary format, instead, in a constructed space in the academy, there was a split screen with the film projection of two actors. After a while it is clear that the actors are acting as ventriloquists for the voices of several participants. The way in which people were surrendering their direct comment to newscaster like ventroliquists hinted as the discomfort of people not wanting to be directly identified.
The whole showing became like a deeply sardonic vox pop of what people really felt about the host country, a conversation which is normally consigned to very private exchanges.
In retrospect it amounted to a stinging critique and a salutary rebuff of what looks like the hollow rhetoric of well funded public discussions which were as much going through the motions, or enacting rituals of concern, as with any real engagement, or, resistance to the direction which the ‘assimilation’ debate was taking. It was leading to the emergence of a radical right wing politics which has been busy promoting an anti-Islam party line, and more specifically targeted and persistent attacks on the Moroccan communities in Holland.
The host culture spoke of tolerance, but not of welcome. It spoke of transparency, and imposed immensely complex rules of adaptation. The voices in the installation spoke clearly of their impatience with the demands for integration, the demands for linguistic competence, the insistence of the ‘one way traffic’ of the exchange.
As with all the work of Gilboa there was at the formal level many layers of suggestion and even symbolization. The work is also about him. One can approach the material via the story of the artist, or simply by considering the means of realization.
However inchoate one’s intuition or how one tries to assuage doubt, there is a deep sense in which existence is indeed enacted, performed, even in the disjoint of time, times in which one feels something must unfold.Gilboa began his artistic search through the study of acting, such a choice already indicates a deep sense of the existential and contingent nature of expression for his life. He had literally left his own life, at least the strong version that had developed in younger days.
The telling of such an autobiography would require a very dimensional model, as in interview he moves from future, to past, to present as if the tenses were in constant tandem, and allowing that he speak in his own words where he explicitly draws the contrast between previous exhibitions, and the current work , Chief of Stuff, which is showing in the event space and gallery, Contemporary art by Golconda, in Tel Aviv. He comments:
“End exam was about my experience, departing and crossing, you know, ‘I want to be green’.
Then I choose people, instead to use my own story I looked for other people, and in doing so I told my own. This shift was what was interesting, and I went on to investigate the other side.
Now I wanted to take myself and wanting to deal with the situation, to see how I live here and the way I see my self here, and my isolation from Israel, it is about my own experience, and I decided to put myself in the centre. It is like, how to explain it, it is not a farewell, I will never say farewell, I am always an Israeli.
I believe in experience more than study. I enjoyed doing business, but it was not the core. I decided to be an artist.”
The details are jagged, like abrupt telegrams from what seems already a remote past – scouting, a famous youth group. Dream: to go to special army unit. Training: children prepare themselves for exams. I started this in high school. Getting fit. Down to 30 people. Meetings. Five day, shrinks. Preparing this day. I achieved this. I was accepted. My father wept. Such pride. After this I was kicked out. I was devastated.”
Gilboa managed to harness his own sense of failure and align it with an understanding of the broader political shift. He is obsessed with actualia and newspapers. This led him to realize there was a pattern, and that it was coming back to the fear factor: “Even if nothing happens there is a constant generation of fear. Maybe it is now a cliché, Israel didn’t invent it. It was shocking to see it from outside”
It does not seem too surprising that this passionate man should exchange the ambition of being a soldier, in a highly trained elite unit’- equivalent to the SAS of the British army- to the role of the artist as a warrior, as one directly engaged in art, in politics, in the whole distribution of value and meaning of his own lived experiences.
Gilboa had already shown his ability to kick against sentiment and belonging, whilst wrestling with its emotional and even voracious hold. What guides him is also a complex mix; and not free of recidivist longing; There is a song which speaks of youth/ soldier/angel, it is a part of the literal ‘folk’ memory, it is the bonding curriculum of identity, more than any religious ordinances, or legal requirements for the citizen;” I am obsessed with memorial songs, and music from Israel in the 50’s, 60’s 70’s, sad and romantic songs. Already as a child I was obsessed with it, I used to record these memorial days from the radio, I am all the time listening to this, and maybe this is what relates me, it is a pain a good pain.”
Granted the acoustic backdrop; one can also see that there is a single iconic impulse behind much of the present exhibition. This is not unlike the pop obsession with the repetition of the single image, in Warhol, glossed by Deleuze in his conclusion to Difference and Repetition in no uncertain terms, where he points to the situation of art as having no other aesthetic problem than that of the insertion of art into everyday life, because the more daily life appeared to be standardized and stereotyped, the more art needed to be injected into it, in order to extract the ‘little difference’ that plays simultaneously between other levels of repetition, and in one way in order to make the extremes meet- the extremes being the habitual series of consumption and the instinctual series of destruction and death.
Deleuze suggests that art connects the tableau of cruelty with that of stupidity, and discovers underneath consumption what he calls the schizophrenic clattering of jaws, and underneath the most ignoble destructions of war, still more processes of consumption. There is an aesthetic reproduction of the illusions and mystifications that make up the real essence of this civilization; his view confirms that of Walter Benjamin, every document of culture is a document of barbarity.
Somewhere in this almost hopeless enmeshment there is a force for anger to express the difference even if it is repetitive and capable of the strangest selection, even if it is only a contraction here and there. As in matter itself as image, it occurs in a sudden swerve that re-constellates forces. In order to understand that Deleuze points to technique of repetition that can lead from the sad repetition of habit – to those of memory, and the ultimate repetition of death in which freedom is played out, the abandoned horizon.
Sometimes the individual stands before that horizon, even in fear, and wills to die into the light, which is an act of self-creation, not of suicide. In the compelling installation of the bed room with wall paper, Gilboa creates a chilling tableau’morte’.
One is reminded by the frank frontatlity of the soldier of the recruiting slogans for the army from Uncle Sam, of Jasper John’s target, and strangely the morbid images of Warhol, electric chairs, and single iconic figures staring into the void. It is confrontation in the space of intimacy and the dream, and again if Benjamin says charmingly of stamps, that they are the calling cards States leave in the bedrooms of childhood, here the patterned image is a frightening intrusion of a call to arms, or death and surrender, where fear is the inheritance of the citizen, and war the dream of a child.
Again it took time for Gilboa to meet these mortal masks, and to respond in his art; from target objects, to patterned images of Samurai, to hybrid photographs of soldiers in uniforms, to his own mocking, parodic even send up of masculinity, of soldiery, as a Plautian Miles
Gloriosus, brilliantly acted in his own video: to what would be seen as major transgressive gestures towards the insignia of office, the uniform of high ranking military, and even further the macabre use of the death skull of a Picasso head to become part of the skull and bones of official marking, all of this branding of authority and power, the grotesque of conscripted citizenry which lives through fear and defense, and not out of strength, are direct aims of his work, to comment, expose, but above all to show:
I took the target when I moved here, ( scilicet.Amsterdam) and it was in my studio for six years. I decided to start working on it, and take it as a symbol, so the memorial song and target is the starting point for this project. Surrounded by songs and images, is it a purpose for my commitment, I think it an endless task to communicate with my past as an Israeli.”
But, there is no consigning such memory and image to a past. It beckons like the horizon of the possibility of non-possibility that haunts every life. In the repetition there is a build up which become literally uncanny, to be at home is also not to be at home, rather life instead of a secure dwelling, offers a constant vigilant ‘observation post’, a place of look-out. Ancient fears of being predated upon and the need to survive take over all the instincts. The social is only a temporary convention. Vigilance is permanent possession. The other choice is to live in a transparent bubble maybe. Like something from a picture of Bosch.
“Things keep me there. I’m Israeli it is not going away.”
In this exhibition he returns home and there being at home is most deeply felt. By now it is clear, the life of the artist needed as much virtue and endurance as that of any soldier, it also requires moral courage, and the deepest valor of being free, and human.